Grand Jury Investigating Community College District

Adam Elmahrek

The Santa Ana headquarters of the Rancho Santiago Community College District.

The Orange County grand jury, and possibly the FBI, is investigating the Rancho Santiago Community College District, with sources confirming they were called in for interviews with grand jurors and contacted by an FBI agent.

It’s unclear whether the grand jury is gathering evidence for a possible criminal complaint, or for a potential report on the district. The grand jury both acts as a civil watchdog that publishes reports on government agencies, and it reviews evidence for criminal cases.

The sources interviewed by Voice of OC declined to specify what was discussed, citing documents they signed swearing confidentiality. But they did confirm it related to issues raised in a Voice of OC series about the district published last December.

The series focused on how district leaders traveled lavishly at taxpayers’ expense, and revealed that the district provides trustees with some of the most expensive health benefits packages of any community college district statewide.

It also found that companies looking to do business with the district spent thousands of dollars on gifts for Peter Hardash, the district’s head of business services. Meanwhile, Hardash recommended millions of dollars in contracts for the vendors.

The FBI’s questioning followed a complaint filed by the Concerned Orange Taxpayers group with federal and local law enforcement agencies. The complaint focused on the district foundation’s controversial deal with Saudi Arabia in which the district would provide consulting for two technical schools in the Middle-Eastern kingdom.

With Saudi Arabia facing a youth unemployment crisis the country has looked to Western universities to help improve its system of technical schools. But many of these ventures – including Rancho Santiago’s — have faced pushback from local residents and faculty concerned with the kingdom’s human rights record.

Meanwhile, the Colleges of Excellence, the district foundation’s Saudi client in the deal, has been under a Saudi corruption investigation, according to The New Arab, a London-based news website.

Sammy Rodriguez, a member of Concerned Orange Taxpayers and a part-time district faculty member, said he had two meetings with FBI agent Joseph Nieblas about the district. And another source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed a separate meeting with Nieblas.

Rodriguez said based on his meetings with Nieblas, he believes the FBI is also conducting an investigation of the district. Rodriguez pointed to the secretive nature of the Saudi deal – the district foundation board held meetings behind closed doors in violation of the state’s open meetings law – as evidence of something amiss.

““Because of the lack of oversight from the trustees to do their jobs, the taxpayers felt they had no choice but to ask the FBI, the DA and grand jury to intervene.” Rodriguez said. “They’re keeping all the information about how they conduct business secret from the public.”

The FBI never confirms nor denies whether it is conducting an investigation.

Another possible subject of the grand jury investigation is the Orange Education Center, which the district will have to spend millions of dollars to remodel because the project never received approval from the state architect. There have also been allegations that district leaders withheld this information from the public so the district could pass a voter-approved facilities bond measure in 2014.

District officials did not return a message left with the chancellor’s office for comment.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek